Why I prefer using Instapaper on the web over their Android app

I’m not a fan of Instapaper’s web browser extensions or their Android app, but I am a fan of their core read-later service.

Instapaper is a service for saving copies of web pages to a list so you can read them later. It’s a great tool for reducing tab overload and helping you read more during the week. It can also serve as a searchable archive of articles you’ve already read.

Instapaper was the first service of its kind and their content-extraction algorithm is far superior to alternative services like Mozilla Pocket. The ability to properly extract n article from a website (for personal use, of course) is the defining feature of a read-later service.

However, Instapaper’s Android app leaves a lot to be desired. (You can skip ahead until after the first asterism if you don’t want to read about all the pain-points with Instapaper’s Android app.)

The app is slow to download updates to the reading list, making me sit and wait for it to complete the process. The interval for how often it should do this in the background is configurable, but I haven’t seen this option have much of an effect. Either manually locking my device while it’s updating or just letting the screen time out and lock on its own also causes the app to get stuck in an infinite update process when you unlock the device again.

Scrolling up and down in the app causes the screen to be yanked up and down which causes me to lose my place as I’m reading. This happens quite often on mobile because placing your finger on the screen sometimes causes views to scroll up a pixel or two before you begin to scroll downwards.

It’s impossible to add a new link to the reading list from inside the app. In apps designed for Android, you’d expect to find this functionality in a prominently visible floating action button (FAB). Instead, you must share a webpages or link to the app through Android’s built-in sharing system.

This doesn’t work reliably, however. Some links you share to the app never end up on the reading list. They just vanish and you get no message informing you that anything went wrong.

Sharing webpages to Instapaper from some apps like Google News using Android’s sharing tools is unfortunately also somewhat broken. The article summary/description in the the reading list ends up displaying the article’s URL rather than the actual reading list. This is caused by a collision of how Android’s sharing system works and a feature in Instapaper that allows you to save a specific text selection with an article.

The Instapaper app crashes quite often if you quickly switch to another app, like when you need to answer a message or lookup a word in a dictionary. As usual, I’ve tested and confirmed these issues on both a Nokia 7 Plus running Android One edition 9.0 and a Samsung S8 running Android 8.0.

So the Instapaper-app experience on Android isn’t too grate. Their mobile web experience is, however, much better. The mobile web variant of Instapaper doesn’t have any of the aforementioned flaws.

The main problem with just relying on the mobile web version is that you first have to pull it up and then paste a link into it. Being a Firefox for Android user myself, I knew I could improve on this process using extensions.

The official browser extension from Instapaper (last updated 21 months ago) doesn’t have any features other than “save this page to Instapaper”. It also negatively impact page load times (inserting 80 kB of JavaScript into every frame) and doesn’t work with First-Party Isolation (FPI), a Firefox privacy feature. The extension also tries to insert some unwanted additional buttons on Hacker News (still works), and Reddit (broken since they moved to HTTPS by default), and Twitter (breaks their page design).

I ended up making my own Instapaper extension instead, and expanded on the official extension’s feature set while I was at it. The extension I wrote gives you the option to either Read Now, Read Later, or Read Later and Close Tab (saving you considerable mouse movement to close a tab after you’ve saved an article on the desktop version of Firefox). The new extension is also compatible with FPI and doesn’t impact page load performance.

Get this Firefox add-on

This extension closed the gap for me on how to quickly add new content to Instapaper from my mobile browser (which is were the wast majority of links I want to save for later come from).

My main complaint about the mobile web experience is that there isn’t a navigation item that takes you back to the reading list when you’ve open an article. The system-wide Back button works if you opened the article from the reading list, but that won’t work if you used Read Now in my extension or opened something from the reading list in a new tab. I also added a shortcut to reopen the Reading List in the extension menu.

At this point you may be thinking “why doesn’t he just use Pocket instead of Instapaper?” I’ll freely acknowledge that Mozilla Pocket’s Android app is better than the Instapaper app. I used it for over a year before I migrated to Instapaper!

The improved user experience of Pocket’s app doesn’t really matter that much when their core service is inferior to Instapaper. As I said in the third paragraph of this article, Pocket doesn’t do a good job at extracting and saving articles. They’re pretty much useless to me when they can’t get the core of their service right. I go into greater details on this in my article series on Web Reading Mode.

Instapaper recently announced they’re going independent following a two-year period under the ownership of Pinterest. I’m hoping they’ll renew focus on their core product and work to improve their Android app and browser extensions, specifically. If not, it’ll become increasingly difficult to convince myself that I still want to be an Instapaper customer.